“Look upstairs and make sure you like it, so that next time you pass by, you know that you can stay here,”she said to me in a singsong voice, soft and sweet through smiling eyes.
Translated for me from Italian to English by Stefano, I could feel the warmth in every word as she looked right at me while speaking.
“They can tell you feel very relaxed and they like this,” he relayed to me.
I did feel relaxed. The fire was crackling behind me in a several thousand year old house in the Italian countryside town of Vignola. Ricotta cheese sat in front of me that I was told had still been in the cow that morning.
We had just finished a first course of fresh tagliatelle and tortelloni that Giovanna had handmade herself. Her husband Dante, (like Dante Aligierhi! I said when meeting him) sat quietly at the head of the table, looking satisfied. In front of each of us sat round two: pork and potatoes with ricotta cheese on the side accompanied by delicious local olive oil and pepper on top.
We had already been eating and drinking prosecco for a couple of hours and the meal would stretch for another two. We would finish with a dessert of ricotta with a fig jam Giovanna made from her fig trees, I’d take an impromptu tour of the property where they grow almost all of their own food, raise chickens and rabbits, and bake bread in an ancient wood fired oven in their cellar. Avid antique collectors, their house was a menagerie of historical gems.
Simply blown away by the age of everything in the house, given I come from a place where most building has been done in the last 50 or so years, coupled with hospitality unlike anything I had ever experienced, I couldn’t help but look around and think to myself, “this is exactly what it’s like to be Anthony Bourdain,” except it was even more authentic minus the video cameras and editing.
This was real life Italian hospitality and I could hardly believe I was getting to experience it.
It came to pass completely serendipitously because the rain had been heavy in Emilia Romagna that day. Stefano was supposed to take me on a full day of trekking around the countryside, but it wasn’t possible given the weather. We decided that it was a blessing that the rain had come because after talking that morning over cappuccino to come up with a new game plan, he decided that given my interest in doing things off the tourist trail, I might enjoy a meal with a friend of his.
He suggested it and I almost bubbled over with excitement, absolutely loving the idea of joining an Italian family for a meal.
What was supposed to be a quick lunch turned into the entire day’s activity, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled about it. I had just discovered that I was a closet foodie and there is no place like Italy to find your inner fat kid.
Just one day later, Francesco, a local medical student training to be a surgeon met up with me for what would be our fifth night exploring Bologna, I had met him via couchsurfing and we instantly clicked. He had taken me all over the city on his motorbike for the few nights prior, showing me awesome street art and taking me to an amazing view of a famous church outside of the city.
“I’ve got a surprise for you,” he deviously giggled as he drove April, a British au pair in Bologna, and me to a friend’s chateau in the hills above the city.
The lights sparkled in the distance as a jolly elderly gentleman came out to greet us, followed by his incredibly cuddly and friendly black and white spotted hound dog, Gino.
Francesco prepared a meal of beef steak and lemon rosemary potatoes drizzled in amazing local olive oil while Ippolito, a cheeky and lovable old man with aspirations of opening his home up to become a bed and breakfast, took me around his several thousand year-old property. It seemed like just about everything in Emilia Romagna was old, well-preserved, and amazing.
The night was spent laughing, eating, and bonding over lambrusco, olives and bread from Puglia, and discussing how I would most certainly return to Bologna to rent an apartment one day, because there is no way that I can walk away from all of the amazing bonds I made there.
I never thought I was a foodie, but I was wrong. More and more as a solo traveler, I’m finding that I get invited into homes and welcomed by locals just by being open, friendly, and by saying ‘yes’.
I never thought Europe would capture my heart as much as Southeast Asia had, but it has. I have a feeling this will be another mad, deep, fiery love affair.
Have you ever had an amazing local experience with even more amazing food? Do share!
*Just a note on my title: Anthony Bourdain is both an esteemed chef and an amazing writer and is featured on the Travel Channel. I don’t truly feel that I’m superior to him in any way, but couldn’t help but feel like my experiences in Italy slightly matched the ones showcased on his show, No Reservations. It’s simply a cheeky title.
Additionally, I was a guest in Bologna courtesy of Blogville Emilia Romagna. All opinions are my own.